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The Hell of Copper (L'Enfer du Cuivre). Series: The Hell of Copper. 1800x1200. January-November 2008. Accra, Ghana. © Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo

Burkina Faso-born Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo is one of the twelve shortlisted photographers for the Prix Pictet.

Ouedraogo’s ‘The Hell of Copper’ (L’Enfer du Cuivre) depicts the Aglobloshie Dump in Accra, Ghana. “From dawn to dusk, dozens of young Ghanians, from 10 to 25 years of age, exhaust themselves […] seven days a week. Their mission is to disassemble the old computers and burn certain plastic or rubber components to cull the precious copper, which will then be resold. Everything is done by hand or with iron bars, makeshift tools found among the refuse. They have neither masks nor gloves. There are not even any functioning toilets,” says Ouedraogo.

Ouedraogo quotes a 2008 Greenpeace report on toxic substances at the site:
– lead: in cathode tubes and monitors, harms the nervous, reproductive, and circulatory systems.
– mercury: in flat screens, harms the nervous system and the brain, especially in young children.
– cadmium: in computer batteries, dangerous for the kidneys and the bones.
– PVC: this plastic used to insulate electrical wires, when burned, gives off carcinogenic chemical substances that can cause respiratory, cardiovascular and dermatological problems.

Ouedraogo’s pictures are good, but I don’t think they are good enough. The story is vital but the images don’t live up to its importance (presuming the 10 images edit for the Prix Pictet are his best works.)

In truth, I don’t want to criticise the work of a photographer from Burkina Faso. When was the last time a photographer from Western, Eastern or Central Africa was shortlisted for a major photography prize? We should be celebrating the recognition. But Ouedraogo shouldn’t win; the project is not polished enough.

For the record, I don’t think big-guns like Taryn Simon or Ed Burtynsky should win either: they don’t need the exposure and their work is familiar, a bit dated and easy to digest.

I hope either Stéphane Couturier or Vera Lutter win.

INTRODUCING PIETER HUGO

Back to Aglobloshie. It’s a familiar subject to us photo-nerds, not least because Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error about Aglobloshie did the rounds a few months back.

Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana. 2010. @ Pieter Hugo

Hugo was very quick at turning his images round. They were distributed within months of his 2010 visit to Aglobloshie. Yet, it was Ouedraogo who went to the toxic site first; in 2008, a full two years before Hugo set up his camera.

Hugo has been the centre of debates on race and representation before, so it is with even more reluctance I draw the comparison to Ouedraogo. Hugo’s portfolio contains dozens of images and so it can boast a wider view of the poisoned micro-environment. This works in Hugo’s favour.

Both photographers emphasise the prevalence of child labour, the presence of grazing livestock and the use of found tools and noxious open fires to extract copper from the scraps. If you look at the statements by Ouedraogo and Hugo they contain virtually the same info.

Again, it is the story that is of primary importance, here.

The ultimate question then, is which portfolio is best likely to capture the attention and imagination of viewers enough for them to shift their worldview of politics, consumption and globally connected “growth”? (“Growth” is the theme of the Prix Pictet this year.)

Hugo’s work sells in galleries and it made for those gallery sales. It’s also a bleak look at the conspicuous consumerism. Ouedraogo’s work is uses photojournalist angles, some portraits and shots of the expanses of computer carcasses. Ouedraogo’s work is less cohesive. And for some reason I want to say it peels away.

I’m not really convinced by either, but I’d still err reluctantly to the foggy Hugo square.

The one thing Hugo’s work lacks is the sentiment (and hope?) of the picture below, with which Ouedraogo closes his portfolio.

The Hell of Copper (L'Enfer du Cuivre). Series: The Hell of Copper. 1800x1200. January-November 2008. Accra, Ghana. © Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo

The other eleven finalists for the Prix Pictet are Christian Als (Denmark); Edward Burtynsky (Canada); Stéphane Couturier (France); Mitch Epstein (US); Chris Jordan (US); Yeondoo Jung (Korea); Vera Lutter (Germany); Taryn Simon (US); Thomas Struth (Germany); Guy Tillim (South Africa); Michael Wolf (Germany). Biographies here.

Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Pieter Hugo’s series Permanent Error appeared in last weeks New York Magazine under the title A Global Graveyard for Dead Computers in Ghana.

The style is not too distant from Nollywood or The Hyena & Other Men, the former of which dusted up a small (and in my opinion, unnecessary) brouhaha last year about neo-colonialism/exploitation in photography.

Hugo’s case, in this instance, is not helped by the fact that the NY Times magazine piece is purely a gallery with no journalist  elaborations, save the captions.

The merits and shortcomings of Hugo’s photographic approach is only half the issue; our denial of the extent of racial and economic inequality colours our response.

Hugo graduated in 1994. In this interview (which I think I came across amongst James’ youtube feast) Hugo gives an interesting perspective on how his work fits historically in the South African tradition.

“The photography in South Africa comes from a very political background. Pre-1994, it was an extreme situation here. And if one had the skill you had a certain responsibility to inform the world what was happening here. It was very much all black and white. This is wrong and this is right. There are good guys and there are bad guys.

That’s all changed now. Guys that were good are now bad and the lines aren’t as distinct as they were. […] Things are more complex […] One of the things I hope people get when they look at my pictures is that things are complex.”

This still might not excuse an aesthetic that aggressively depicts African subjects as “the other”, but then, what split second act of opening the shutter is not a machine-mediated differentiation between user and subject?

AFTER THOUGHT

The overtly-political nature of South African (photojournalism) photography is something David Goldblatt, as an art-documentarian, had to negotiate himself away from. And yet, as Fred Ritchin remarks, “during Goldblatt’s career, which began in the early 1960s, nearly everything that he saw was contextualized by the distorting prism of apartheid.”

This makes me wonder if there’s been an adequate survey of ‘South African photography from the second half of the 20th century’ toured on an international stage. If there has been, please let me know.

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